Reclaiming Our Temple

Sadly, people often fill up their hearts with things that aren’t so good to worship. The temple of our hearts can get messed up and overrun with garbage, or taken over by invaders. When we are too attached to something too small, we call it idolatry or addiction. When we are addicted to something, it has captured the temple of our heart, just like the story we hear at Hanukkah about the Syrians who captured the temple in ancient Jerusalem.

I remember a friend who got caught like that. This was back when we were in high school, and she had gone to see the movie, Bonnie and Clyde, about the two famous gangsters. Somehow that movie became the most important thing in her life. She started dressing like a gangster, and smoking marijuana, and drinking beer; she stopped paying attention to school, and started hanging out with kids who were skipping school and going to stores to shoplift. She became a different person, who didn’t care about anything or anyone anymore. I don’t know what happened to her after I left school. I hope she found a way to clean all the junk out of her heart.

But each of us at some point in our lives has been taken over by something unworthy. How could we not be? We are surrounded by advertising, by greed, by competition, by individualism, by dogmatism, by ideology. Just to survive we make compromises; we learn to align ourselves with a group or a product. We divide into red and blue states. We worship a good thing until it becomes an idol for us. There are many ways to be too small.

Stained Glass Circle DSC05480When our heart has been taken over by something unworthy, it is a battle to win it back. It can be the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives. Like the Maccabees who won back the temple in Jerusalem, we may need to dedicate all of our strength to reclaiming our own temple again. We may need to gather others together to help us. But this is important. This is the temple. This is the heart of our life.

The feast of Hanukkah is known as a celebration of miracles. It reminds us that the dedication of the temple is not a simple thing—that there will always be battles over what is in the temple. That we must always re-dedicate ourselves to the worship of what is worthy of us. When I reflect on the old story, I ask myself, again, what is in my temple today? To what is it dedicated? Does it need to be purified? The miracle of Hanukkah was first of all believing that change was possible. Even when all seems hopeless, if we take the first step, if we light the first candle, the way will open up. We take the second step, and light the second candle.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, what would you worship there? We can make a choice to worship that which has true worth for us. Rumi advised:

Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.


Itsy-bitsy Statues

When we give our lives to a larger purpose, whether we name it God, or kindness, or the earth, or Mystery, we can find meaning and transformation and spiritual growth. To worship something too small can distort and cheapen our lives. Even spiritual or religious things can be too small. Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk as well as a writer, said, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.”

Yard Statues DSC09950

When we get attached to our ideas, or images, or even our ways of praying, we can forget the largeness of what it’s all about. We can forget that spirituality is meant to awaken us to the larger whole of reality, of which we are a part. Rumi, the Sufi poet, put it this way: “Don’t be a cat toying with a mouse. Go after the love lion.”

Writer Annie Dillard, reflecting on Merton, said:

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is all so self conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down… I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

Reality is bigger and more mysterious than the things we do, or the ideas we think, or the stuff we buy. If we get too attached to any small thing—wearing the right clothes, or going to the right parties, or having the latest gadget, or even going to the right church—we are filling up our temple with junk. If we fill up our temple with junk, we will miss the “gaps,” the wild places where the “winds pour down.” We will miss the magic.

Thomas Merton was quoted by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Rumi quote is from Coleman Barks, The Soul of Rumi

What is worthy of our worship?

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart, what would you worship there?

The Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama, has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is Kindness.” In the temple of his heart, he has chosen kindness to value, he has chosen kindness to which to commit his life. He has tried to live with kindness, even when the Chinese government took over his homeland of Tibet, and he went to live in exile. When he could no longer go to the beautiful temples of his childhood, he opened the temple of his heart, and chose kindness and compassion for all people.

People worship different things within the temple of their hearts. It is a very personal choice, to find what is worthy of your worship.

The pagan writer and teacher, Starhawk, calls herself a dirt-worshiper. She points to the soil beneath our feet, and reminds us that all of our food comes from that soil. The soil is the place of Life. So it becomes the most valuable thing in the temple of her heart. She gardens in the soil, and replenishes it with compost. She creates ritual to worship the earth, and celebrate all the seasons of the earth—fall, winter, spring and summer. She tries to stop the companies that are damaging the soil by using too much fertilizer or cutting down the forests. Sometimes she even goes to jail. She is really committed to the earth and to the soil. It is at the center of her heart and her life.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Take some time to ponder it.

What do you hold in the center of your heart?
What would you be willing to fight for, to die for?
Is your heart filled with junk?
Or something worthy of your commitment?
When you clean up everything, what stays in the room?
What is the thing you would never throw away?
What helps you keep your balance when trouble comes or storms rock your world?
What helps you connect with the larger reality of which we are a part?

What do you worship?

Window MJ IMG_0066If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?
Go there now.
                                        Tom Barrett

In ancient times, the temple was the center of the Jewish religion. It was the most beautiful building in all Judea. I wonder what it might be like to have one place in your country where people could journey to experience the mystery of God. It would have to be very beautiful and light, and full of music, or perhaps silence. The Jews had such a building. They believed that God was close to them in the temple. Only the priests could go deep inside to the very center room—they called it the holy of holies. But just being in the building gave people a sense of hope and wonder and mystery.

The poet Tom Barrett asks,

“If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?”

Twentieth century theologian James Luther Adams said that every person worships something. The word “worship” comes from worth—to worship means to honor the thing that is worth the most to us. To what will we give our devotion, our loyalty, our sacrifices? Whatever we give our deepest allegiance to—that is what we worship, that is our God. Even if we think we do not believe in any God, we will give our allegiance to something.

What we worship, what our God is, has implications for how we live our lives, and what we value in all parts of our lives. Should our attitude toward reality be one of caution, or thankfulness? Obedience, or exploration? Aggression, or compassion? Who or what is revered by us? Warriors dying in battle, or mothers giving birth? Those who are tough and tenacious, or those who are thoughtful and kind? It is not enough to ask, do you believe in God? Rather, we must ask, what kind of God is worthy of our belief? James Luther Adams said it is important to choose something worthy of our allegiance.

Tom Barrett, “What’s In The Temple?” is from Keeping in Touch, 1993.
For more from James Luther Adams, see “A Faith for the Free,” in The Essential James Luther Adams, edited by George Kimmich Beach (Boston: Skinner House, 1998).